Summer of ‘21 Reading—Notes from the Editors

25 July, 2021

I read Sara­je­vo Fire­wood, the nov­el by Saïd Khat­i­bi, trans­lat­ed by Paul Starkey (Lon­don: Ban­i­pal, 2021).

Ban­i­pal 2021

Saïd Khatibi’s coura­geous and extra­or­di­nary nov­el is a labyrinthine jour­ney, with Alge­ria at one pole, Bosnia at the oth­er, and Slove­nia serv­ing as neu­tral ground in-between. As the two nar­ra­tors, Sal­im from Algiers and Ivana from Sara­je­vo, dis­cov­er and are exposed to shock­ing knowl­edge of their respec­tive fam­i­ly ori­gins, we are tak­en on a jour­ney with­in the jour­ney. Along the way, we are forced to recon­sid­er what we think we know about lib­er­a­tion, nation­al­ism, decol­o­niza­tion, and war, as Khat­i­bi mas­ter­ful­ly shifts our focus from the state to the fam­i­ly and the con­tin­u­al trau­ma of self-under­stand­ing in the process of becom­ing an indi­vid­ual. The nov­el was short­list­ed last year for the Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fiction.

Ammiel Alcalay (Con­tribut­ing Editor)


Pen­guin 2021

Writ­ten in a no-frills yet pierc­ing prose style, Imbo­lo Mbue’s How Beau­ti­ful We Were is an account — trag­ic, wrench­ing, and at times exas­per­at­ing­ly doc­u­men­tary-like — of one village’s strug­gle against the avarice of an Amer­i­can oil com­pa­ny in a sub-Saha­ran coun­try. The sto­ry of the village’s 40-year strug­gle, with its few ups and many downs, is relat­ed by sev­er­al mem­bers of a sin­gle fam­i­ly, as well as a group of chil­dren turned adult rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies that nar­rates in the first-per­son plur­al. (I reviewed the nov­el in the Boston Globe.)

 

 

Grove Atlantic 2021

I also read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Com­mit­ted which is of course his sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning The Sym­pa­thiz­er. The Com­mit­ted is thin on plot and more cere­bral than its pre­de­ces­sor, with the author appar­ent­ly heed­less of the pit­falls of hav­ing his eru­dite protagonist/narrator expa­ti­ate upon anti-colo­nial the­o­ry as pro­pound­ed by the likes of Fanon and Césaire. Yet in a care­ful­ly wrought and incre­men­tal devel­op­ment, that protagonist’s per­cep­tion of him­self as the con­sum­mate “sym­pa­thiz­er” emerges as more apt here than it did in the first book. Although he increas­ing­ly sees the faults under­ly­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal con­structs tow­er­ing over both sides of the Viet­nam divide, he feels for those of his com­pa­tri­ots prop­ping up either edi­fice. Often­times, the Sym­pa­thiz­er views him­self as “a man of two faces and two minds.” (Here’s my review in Pop­Mat­ters).

Rayyan Al-Shawaf (Crit­ic-at-Large)


Both avail­able from Europa Edi­tions.

I’ve been read­ing two nov­els from Ahmet Altan’s Ottoman Quar­tet, Like a Sword Wound, the first in the series, pub­lished in 2018, and Love in the Days of Rebel­lion, the sec­ond, pub­lished in 2020. Both are trans­lat­ed from the Turk­ish by Bren­dan Freely & Yel­da Türed. They are exquis­ite. A con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure for some in Turkey, Altan is a nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist who has been in and out of Erdogan’s pris­ons for sev­er­al years.

I’ve also read and rec­om­mend The Book of Dis­ap­pear­ance by Ibti­sam Azem, trans­lat­ed by Sinan Antoon (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019) and the nov­el All the Women Inside Me by Jana Elhas­san, trans­lat­ed by Michelle Hart­man (Inter­link Books, 2021). Round­ing out my list is Pas­sage to the Plaza by Sahar Khal­ifeh, trans­lat­ed by Sawad Hus­sain (Seag­ull Books, 2020).

Rana Asfour (Book Editor)


Pen­guin UK 2121

I’m very much look­ing for­ward to read­ing Elif Shafak’s The Island of Miss­ing Trees, which is due out in August. Set on the island of Cyprus in 1974 and then decades lat­er in Lon­don, the char­ac­ters are Greek and Turk­ish, Chris­t­ian and Muslim.

Mar­garet Atwood tweet­ed: “Love­ly heart­break­er of a nov­el cen­tered on dark secrets of civ­il wars & evils of extrem­ism: Cyprus, star-crossed lovers, killed beloveds, dam­aged kids. Uproot­ings. (One nar­ra­tor is a fig tree!)”

Elif Shafak is the Turk­ish-British author of sev­er­al cel­e­brat­ed nov­els, includ­ing The Bas­tard of Istan­bul, The Forty Rules of Love and 10 Min­utes 38 Sec­onds in this Strange World.

Melis­sa Chemam (Con­tribut­ing Editor)


Find it here.
Find it here.

This sum­mer I’ve been div­ing into mem­oirs, includ­ing Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. I had read that Blow had been com­pared with James Bald­win and after last summer’s George Floyd march­es, which were the largest seen in the US for years, this book seemed time­ly — it’s not a new title but one that holds up. Here’s what Alice Walk­er says about it: “Some truths can­not be taught, only learned through sto­ries — pro­found­ly per­son­al and star­tling­ly hon­est accounts that open not only our eyes but also our hearts to painful and com­pli­cat­ed social real­i­ties. Charles Blow’s mem­oir tells these kinds of truths. No one who reads this book will be able to for­get it. It lays bare in so many ways what is beau­ti­ful, cru­el, hope­ful and despair­ing about race, gen­der, class and sex­u­al­i­ty in the Amer­i­can South and our nation as a whole. This book is more than a per­son­al tri­umph; it is a true gift to us all.”

I’m also about to read Lady­parts, the new mem­oir by Deb­o­rah Copak­en. Here’s what the publisher’s blurb reveals: “Lady­parts is her irrev­er­ent inven­to­ry of both the female body and the body politic of wom­an­hood in Amer­i­ca, the sto­ry of one woman brought to her knees by the one-two-twelve punch of divorce, solo moth­er­hood, health­care Frog­ger, unaf­ford­able child­care, shady land­lords, her father’s death, col­lege tuitions, sex­u­al harass­ment, cor­po­rate indif­fer­ence, ageism, sex­ism, and plain old bad luck. Plus sev­en seri­ous ill­ness­es, one atop the oth­er, which pro­vide the book’s nar­ra­tive skele­ton: vagi­na, uterus, breast, heart, cervix, brain, and lungs. She bounces back from each bum body part, finds workarounds for every set­back — she trans­forms her home into a com­mune to pay rent; sells her soul for health insur­ance; turns FBI infor­mant when her sex­u­al harass­er is nom­i­nat­ed to the White House — but in her slip­pery strug­gle to sur­vive a steep plunge off the mid­dle-class lad­der, she is sud­den­ly awok­en to what it means to have no safe­ty net.

Side-split­ting­ly fun­ny one minute, a freak hor­ror show the next, quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can, Lady­parts is an era-defin­ing mem­oir for our time.”

Monique El-Faizy (Con­tribut­ing Editor)


HMH 2020

Let’s see, I’m about to fin­ish Jo Glanville’s new book, Look­ing for An Ene­my, 8 Essays on Anti­semitism (yes, anti-Jew­ish racism is still alive and kick­ing, I’m afraid). I’m also about to start the new nov­el from Aza­reen Van der Vli­et Oloo­mi, who became a des­ti­na­tion on the lit­er­ary map with her 2018 crit­i­cal sen­sa­tion, Call Me Zebra (which won the 2019 Pen/Faulkner Award). Both the new nov­el, Sav­age Tongues, and Zebra fea­ture Iran­ian refugees and locales in Spain, but in Sav­age Tongues there is also an Israeli Amer­i­can schol­ar who is com­mit­ted to the Pales­tin­ian cause and an old­er Lebanese lover. The press release from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court sug­gests the nov­el is “equal parts Mar­guerite Duras and Shirley Jack­son, Rachel Cusk and Saman­tha Schwe­blin” and “is a com­pul­sive, unset­tling, and brave­ly observed explo­ration of vio­lence and eroti­cism, haunt­ing and heal­ing, and the pro­found inti­ma­cy born of the deep­est pain.” So not for the faint of heart, but def­i­nite­ly a bit of a racy book, per­fect for a scorch­ing sum­mer month.

Next up will be Omar El Akkad’s sec­ond nov­el after Amer­i­can War, enti­tled What Strange Par­adise, which appears to be among the best-reviewed nov­els this sum­mer so far, if your barom­e­ters hap­pen to be Lit­er­ary Hub or the New York Times Book Review, whose crit­ic Wen­dell Steav­en­son stat­ed, “El Akkad keeps his plot and focus tight. Told from the point of view of two chil­dren, on the ground and at sea, the sto­ry so astute­ly unpacks the us-ver­sus-them dynam­ics of our divid­ed world that it deserves to be an instant clas­sic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time.” I also like what Mark Athi­takis had to say in The Star Tri­bune: “brief, taut, cool­ly deliv­ered but with seas of emo­tion swirling beneath … Though Amir is the story’s cen­ter, he’s enveloped in El Akkad’s stiffer meta­com­men­tary on the migrant cri­sis from sec­ondary char­ac­ters … The nov­el is strongest when El Akkad’s lens is trained on Van­na and Amir. He refers to them togeth­er as ‘chil­dren,’ which is fac­tu­al­ly true, but also empha­sizes the point that sur­viv­ing in a hard­heart­ed environment—even think­ing of survival—requires a cer­tain inno­cence. And a late twist in the nov­el applies some of that inno­cence to the read­er. We’re too eas­i­ly tempt­ed to apply pleas­ant, nov­el­is­tic arcs to human lives, El Akkad sug­gests. He uses his own nov­el to remind us to dis­trust that instinct.”

Jor­dan Elgrably (Edi­tor)


In May I savored read­ing the 3‑book Lilith’s Brood series by Octavia But­ler — Dawn, Adult­hood Rites and Ima­go, which is how they should be read!

Why this tril­o­gy — because the Anthro­pocene is end­ing, soon­er than I thought, and Butler’s take on how it might end — or con­tin­ue after end­ing— via the genet­ic merg­ing of the last sur­viv­ing humans with anoth­er inter­stel­lar sur­vivor species, feels more plau­si­ble with each pass­ing day.

The science‑y aspect of Butler’s sci­ence fic­tion is fas­ci­nat­ing­ly anchored, and the futur­is­tic aspect alarm­ing­ly almost qual­i­fies as prophet­ic by now. By “anchored,” I mean, think of that moment in Plan­et of the Apes when the pro­tag­o­nist from the future comes across some­thing buried in the sand on earth and the jolt you feel when you start to rec­og­nize that what’s buried is the top of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty: that’s how the best sci­ence fic­tion works, that jolt of self-recog­ni­tion when the sto­ry links us with a defa­mil­iar­ized take on our own history.

Right now I’m read­ing Rose­mary Hennessey’s Prof­it and Plea­sure: Sex­u­al Iden­ti­ties in Late Cap­i­tal­ism as I pre­pare cours­es for the fall.

Moh­ja Kahf (Con­tribut­ing Editor)


I just fin­ished Erot­ic Sto­ries for Pun­jabi Wid­ows, a star­tling mys­tery thriller set in a Lon­don immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty, by Bal­li Kaur Jasw­al. This is not a new title, and is in fact her third nov­el, but using a light touch to uncov­er deep themes, she turned a sto­ry about a writ­ing class for elder­ly Pun­jabi woman into a run­away word-of-mouth bestseller.

A Sin­ga­pore­an nov­el­ist with roots in Pun­jab, accord­ing to Wikipedia her fam­i­ly moved inter­na­tion­al­ly dur­ing her child­hood, fol­low­ing her father’s career in the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs. She lived in Sin­ga­pore from the ages of eight to 15, and also lived in Japan, Rus­sia and the Philip­pines grow­ing up. For her under­grad stud­ies she majored in Eng­lish in the Unit­ed States and in 2007 was award­ed the David T.K. Wong Fel­low­ship for writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia in the UK, which sup­ports Eng­lish-lan­guage writ­ing about Asia. Dur­ing the ear­ly part of her career, Jasw­al taught high school Eng­lish in Aus­tralia for sev­er­al years, and taught at an inter­na­tion­al school in Istan­bul. She gave up teach­ing in 2016 when the sale of Erot­ic Sto­ries for Pun­jabi Wid­ows allowed her to take up writ­ing full-time.

Anne-Marie O’Connor (Con­tribut­ing Editor)


The Markaz Bookgroup is reading Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam and will discuss it the last Sunday in August. More info here.


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